It was early in February 1958 and the Manchester United team prepared to travel to Belgrade to defend their slender 2-1 first leg advantage in the European Cup. Hopes were high that a positive result could be achieved, but on a pitch which was far from perfect, nothing was taken for granted.
To the surprise of many, United went in at the interval holding a 3-0 lead but Red Star Belgrade fought back in the second half to make the final score 3 -3 and Manchester United were through to the semi-finals of the European Cup.
It wasn’t to be a direct flight back to Manchester as a refuelling stop was scheduled at Munich’s Riem around 1.00pm. Having left the plane as this process was completed for refreshments, the forty-four passengers made their way back across the snow covered runway as sleet fell. With everyone back in their seats, the pilots went through their normal take-off routine, but forty seconds later this was abandoned due to reduced power in the aircrafts engines.
A second attempt was made and also aborted and again, the passengers embarked and it became doubtful if the second leg of the journey would be completed that afternoon.
Duncan was also busy contacting home, sending a telegram to his landlady Mrs Dorman, with the message – “All Flights Cancelled Flying Tomorrow - Duncan”
Twenty-five minutes later everyone was again slipping and sliding across the tarmac and re-boarding the aircraft, something that must have had an adverse effect on Duncan, who was not the best of travellers, but if he did feel uneasy he certainly did not let it show.
In the cockpit, the pilot and his crew members made their final adjustments and after receiving the all clear from the control tower, the plane began to move slowly down the runway. It was 3.30pm UK time.
The Aircraft was still showing no signs of rising from the runway. A change in the noise from the engines evoked a sense of foreboding, suddenly the silence was broken by the crunch of metal echoing through the fuselage. Darkness enveloped the cabin as the plane spun sideways, ploughing through a fence. The port wing smashed into a house, setting it on fire along with the wing and a section of the tail that had broken off. A tree was sliced in half before the plane collided with a hut containing a vehicle and fuel, which immediately exploded.
The final whistle had blown for many of those on board.
The ‘Manchester Evening News’ hit the streets with a ‘Late Final’ edition and a new front page – “United Cup Team’s Plane Crash – 10-15 Survivors”. The ‘Evening Chronicle’, equally in the dark lead with actual details, but went with a ‘Late Night Final’ edition, its headline proclaiming “United Air Disaster – 28 Killed”.
The ‘Manchester Evening Chronicle’ on February 6th had seen Alf Clarke report that Duncan should be fit for the forthcoming fixture against Wolves, but in its first edition of the following day, Duncan, along with Johnny Berry, were still in a ‘critical condition’, Matt Busby on the other hand was reportedly ‘fighting for his life’. A more depressing read was the list of the dead – Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Geoff Bent, Liam Whelan, Walter Crickmer, Bert Whalley, Tom Curry, Frank Swift, Henry Rose, Archie Ledbrooke, Tom Jackson, Alf Clarke, Eric Thompson, Don Davies, George Follows, Willie Satinoff, W. Cable and S. Miklos.
Reports in the papers from February 8th told of Duncan still being seriously ill, with broken ribs, broken right leg, internal injuries and suffering from shock. “He is fighting magnificently” said a surgeon at the Rechts Der Isar Hospital, “But he is gravely injured. He will never play again.” Talk of having to amputate one of his injured legs was totally rejected.
Two days later he had shown a considerable improvement and had come out of his coma and recognised and spoken to his girlfriend Molly Leech, who had travelled to Munich with relatives of the others who were in hospital, while having also eaten some soup. Fingers were crossed that he was on the road to recovery, but the following day, while one of the dailies reported that he was “still unconscious and in acute danger.”
The ‘Daily Express’ for the following day reported that at 1am Duncan was “very, very ill” and that a few hours after having been removed from the danger list, he was put back on.
It was beginning to look as though Duncan had perhaps, at last, weathered the storm, as there were hopeful signs that his badly bruised kidney might be starting to function again, despite the fact that he was put on the kidney machine for the third time.
Sadly the hopes were dashed as Reporter Douglas Sight wrote: “Team-mates of Manchester United’s plucky young footballer, Duncan Edwards, wept in the Rechts der Isar hospital here today when they were told that soccer’s “wonder boy” had lost the 15-day fight for life.
“The lion hearted Edwards died peacefully in sleep, with no pain, at 2.15 am today after a desperate last-minute battle to save him.
“Edwards had little pain since the crash – only discomfort. He amazed doctors with his fight to live. It was only his immense physical strength and super-human will to live that enabled him to cling to life.”
Thousands lined the streets of Dudley on February 26th as the body of Duncan Edwards made its final journey, many having stood in the cold for hours. Traffic came to a standstill, in the garden of the Edwards home lay some 300 wreaths, while 2,000 people were congregated outside St Francis Church, unable to gain entry.
In his funeral address, the Rev. A. Dawson Catterall said: “We are proud that the great Duncan Edwards was one of our sons. His football record needs no praise within these walls for it was known throughout the world, and this great game is something England has given to the world. Talent and even genius we shall see again, but there will be only one Duncan Edwards.”
He concluded: “This superb and modest athlete lived and loved his life among us to the full and would have undone no part of it. And it is now fulfilled. Go forward Duncan Edwards from this place rich in achievement, honouring and loved by us all.”
After leaving the church, the cortege moved slowly through the Dudley streets, stopping momentarily outside Wolverhampton Street School, where the pupils were lined up, but at the cemetery a crowd of around 3,000 had gathered.
So, Duncan Edwards was laid to rest knowing that his memory would never die and his legacy would live on forever.